XCOM: Enemy Unknown: death and emergent stories

Wednesday, 10th October 2012 12:24 GMT By Patrick Lum

With XCOM: Enemy Unknown shipping in the US and Europe this week, Patrick Lum explores the reboot’s emergent narrative and systemic storytelling.

Before video games came along, where else were you going to get player-authored narratives? Pen-and-paper RPGs, maybe. But, man, am I glad to see it back in action.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about XCOM – to people who didn’t really get into the original, at least – is how personal the whole thing can get. Think about it: you’re the commander of an elite military unit defending the Earth from overwhelming alien invasion. You’re sending units into the meatgrinder, and you know it. In any other strategy game, where your units aren’t pre-made characters (lookin’ at you, Fire Emblem), you wouldn’t give a damn about your rookies. Blood for the blood god, and all that.

But XCOM makes you care about your troopers. Not in a “soldier playing a harmonica and speaking lovingly of home” kind of way, or in a “he was just two weeks from retirement” sense; nothing quite so blatant or crass. It does this, rather, in two major ways: purely through the game’s mechanics, and via dashes of narrative aesthetics.

The mechanics argument is a fairly simple one based entirely on utility, usefulness, and plain tactical worth. Squad sizes in XCOM are limited to six at the most, so every loss – even of the rookies – hurts deeply, at least while you’re still in the battle. Additionally, veteran troopers gain extremely useful abilities and stat upgrades as they rank up, ensuring they’re likely to be your most efficient killing machines in the battles to come. So, as you can imagine, losing any of them – the godlike sniper with squad sight, the experienced medic who could patch up wounds – is painful.

It’s aided by a liberal dosage of minor, largely aesthetic details, that nonetheless do wonders in helping players craft their own stories about the global war of aggression against an unknown alien threat. First and foremost: soldier names. That’s not just a rookie, a squaddie, or a heavy trooper with a rocket launcher. That’s Killian Lynch, Giorgio Tsoukalos and Marina Sokolova. It’s nothing more than assigning a human name to a collections of pixels and tactical options, but, admit it: naming something does something to the human mind.

If you don’t like the pre-assigned variables, you can customise them. Name them after your family, your friends, your co-workers or your enemies; after historical figures, after Power Rangers, after the development staff of the game – anything you want. You can change their faces, the look of their armour, dictate their colour scheme. It’s not pink, it’s light red, soldier! Even things you can’t modify – country of origin, for instance – these help make your troopers into something more than robots.

The first mission and opening sequence.

And these guys and girls aren’t disposable, no sir-ee. They’ll be with you mission after mission, from first contact to the final assault – if you’re skilful, and prepared, and more than a little bit lucky. They don’t just get better abilities as they survive, they gain nicknames, too, and stories. We call him Lockdown – he got off the ramp and didn’t move for two minutes, a sniper shot every three seconds, dead Mutons at our feet. She’s Nuke – why? Check out the rocket launcher and the grenades, and don’t ask stupid questions. Papa Bear? The man took three plasma shots to the chest and didn’t die, he’s got to be at least part ursine.

The best, most interesting part of all these little stories popping up is that none of it is scripted; none of it is laid down in stone, ahead of time, by a creative auteur who knows each and every thing that’s going to happen next. There’s a time and a place for those kinds of tales, but it ain’t here. This is emergent storytelling, people, a multitude of gameplay systems interlocking and pulling together and pushing against one another, with a fresh coat of just-enough-paint on it to fire up your imaginations. Admittedly, the kinds of stories it can tell are limited in scope – it’s pretty much all going to be in the general wheelhouse of killing or being killed by aliens – but it’s still something pretty damn special.

Not that I want to imply that XCOM is the originator of this style of storytelling. Obviously, the original X-com had it in spades; but you can see others of its ilk appear in games as diverse as FTL and Far Cry 2, from Minecraft to DEFCON. Before video games came along, where else were you going to get player-authored narratives? Pen-and-paper RPGs, maybe. But, man, am I glad to see it back in action. Don’t get me wrong; there’s nothing inherently wrong with the linear, movie-style, cutscene-driven stories we see in Assassin’s Creed, in Bioshock, in Call of Duty and elsewhere. But sometimes you just want to play in that sandbox and make your stories out of systems.

By the way, if you’re playing on Classic, build an extra satellite first thing out of the gate. You’ll thank me later.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown released yesterday in the US. It ships on Friday in Europe.



  1. Deacon

    Nice article. Thanks Mr Lum!

    I couldn’t be more excited to start playing this Friday (or maybe tomorrow?!)

    Looking forward to the forum thread involving our tales of heroism / disaster…

    #1 2 years ago
  2. Patrick Garratt

    I’m going to give it a shot this weekend, I think.

    #2 2 years ago
  3. absolutezero

    Im going to pass.

    I just can’t see a single interesting thing about it. At all. It just looks… I dunno, there. Its a thing. Which is nice.

    I have no idea what its personality is like because it appears to not have one.

    (and I still think Xenonauts looks better.)

    #3 2 years ago
  4. Deacon

    #3 – if you have no interest in turn-based strategy games, then fair play.

    If you do however, then I cannot understand how you don’t find this at all interesting!!! ;\

    Maybe I’m being too nostalgic / premature, but I’m utterly convinced of this games’ brilliance already.

    #4 2 years ago
  5. Patrick Garratt

    It’s had some really high scores. I’m not mental about TBS, but if it’s good it’s good. Sam’s been playing a bunch of it and he loves it.

    #5 2 years ago

    TBS, as well as RTS games need to be played to see if you like them or not.

    They’re not action games where you can see 100% of the gameplay experience just by watching a video.

    The reviews of this make me want to give it a go.

    #6 2 years ago
  7. viralshag

    Sounds interesting. I think I might have to give it a go over the weekend.

    #7 2 years ago
  8. DrDamn

    Tried the demo last night and have gone from – “this should have been an XBLA/PSN release, I’ll pick it up cheap” to “what can I trade up to get this?” :)

    #8 2 years ago
  9. DSB

    I think “off” is a pretty descriptive term for it.

    I’ve been playing the original probably once a year since it came out, and I guess naturally enough, there are just tons of little details that stand out as completely out of place.

    The gameplay is alright for what it does, but there’s something very wrong about the line of sight, and because you have so few soldiers, and you often face upwards of about twice as many aliens, the “disposable rookie” mechanic of the last game just isn’t there.

    Losing a single guy this time could mean you lose the mission, and it’s simply not terrifying when aliens rely on numbers to beat you, instead of simply being fucking terrifying and superior on their own, like in the old games.

    You consistently meet aliens in twos and threes, so there’s never any case of just running into the one that has been spying on you from a building, which is another thing that made the old one feel terrifying.

    The fact that your base is suddenly full of friendly faces who just LOVE to talk, and apparently like to do so following the script of so many b-movies hurts the mood too. They’re not taking it seriously, so why should you?

    The original X-COMs were cartoony, but the game never really gave you a feeling of slapstick. This one really does. The charicatured base goons and the exagerated “puffed up” troops make sure of that.

    Then you have all the nitpicky things. One thing I miss is the Geospace view being the default screen of the game. It was the first thing you saw. “This is earth, protect it”.

    Now instead you’re looking at an obscure anthill, under a mountain somewhere. Your base is barely a recognizable part of the planet it’s on.

    The game just lacks pathos. It’s not a bad game, it just doesn’t try to grab you in the same (and all-important) ways.

    #9 2 years ago
  10. Sylrissa

    Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but personally I think considering what they had to live up to, firaxis has done a great job.

    Is it as good as the original, I’d say not, but I’m having a lot of fun with it, and they got many thing right.

    #10 2 years ago
  11. viralshag

    I think this is one of best games I’ve played this year. Absolutely loving it.

    #11 2 years ago

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